Creativity Is the New Currency


Screenshot 2014-03-23 14.05.41For most of my career, I’ve been labeled a “creative.” I worked in the “creative” department. My business card said “creative director” or even more pompous “chief creative officer.” I was someone who crafted taglines, thought up ads, wrote clever copy, conceived TV commercials, and designed digital experiences. Or I helped others do the same. My company, my clients, and the industry therefore said I was “creative.”

But that label is wrong. Not because I was or wasn’t “creative.” But because in the act of declaring me, or anyone, “creative,” it suggests that those who don’t work in a department with that name or lack a business card with the moniker are, by definition, not “creative.”

And that’s just not true. Everyone’s creative. At least until they have it beaten out of them by education, rules, a pressure to succeed and the risk averse nature of most businesses. What’s equally discouraging is that too many people conclude that the labels are right. They come to believe that they reside among the non-creative. I can’t tell you how many account executives, media planners, product managers and clients have told me as a matter of fact that they are “not creative.”

This kind of thinking is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. If you think of yourself as not creative you’re far less likely to take chances. You become reluctant to put forth crazy ideas. You make too many decisions based on what others will think. You fall into the trap of striving to replicate past successes, which are no guarantee of future performance, or simply playing it safe.

However it’s even more damaging to companies and organizations who think this way as they not only define two classes of employee — creative and non-creative — they relegate the “creatives” — typically the designers, art directors and copywriters — to the playroom, leaving the big, important decisions to the operations and financial people. And we all know what a mistake that is.

The good news is that we’re seeing the emergence of a mini industry destined to help business see the light. It started with Sir Ken Robinson’s famed Ted Talk, was fueled by Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and, is now gaining real momentum with an onslaught of books and articles.

Earlier this year Tom and David Kelly gave us Creative Confidence, Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. It’s filled with learning from IDEO’s approach to design thinking and suggestions for how anyone can find their creative spark.

This month brought us the publication of Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. If you’re not convinced by the Kelleys that you have what it takes, Berger makes it even easier by reminding us that all we have to do is ask “deep, imaginative and beautiful” questions. Interestingly, as with creativity overall, our education system tends to squash questioning, too. Berger reminds his readers that children start out asking hundreds of questions a day, but, “Questioning falls off a cliff as kids enter school. In an education and business culture devised to reward rote answers over challenging inquiry, questioning isn’t encouraged—and, in fact, is sometimes barely tolerated.”

Certainly you remember how to ask questions, don’t you?

Next month, we have even more ammunition with the imminent arrival of Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. Catmull is the admired leader of Pixar, owner of the most impressive track record in all of entertainment. While the Kellys and Berger offer guidance for any individual interested in defying the old labels and releasing his inner imagination, Catmull’s lessons offer invaluable insight for organizations and the change agents determined to hack them from within. He writes about how to protect creative people, the importance of honest engagement, the importance of nurturing infant ideas, and the benefits of drawing on collective knowledge.

At Pixar there is a company wide focus on eliminating fear of stupidity, worries about offending someone, and inclinations to retaliate for criticism received. Changing your culture to embrace a similar mindset will never be easy, but most companies can certainly make improvements to the way they generate market changing ideas, develop products and invent new campaigns.

Finally, we can all take some solace knowing that things will get better with time, too. Creativity has become an academic discipline. So after a few generations of killing creativity, it appears education, at least at the secondary level, has caught on to its importance.

I’m doing my part, too. Thanks for reading.

Some great creative books.

Creative Confidency, by Tom and David Kelly

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Creativity, Inc.  by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

And an old classic from the 1940′s: still one of the best

A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young

Authored by:

Edward Boches

I’m Edward Boches, Professor of the Practice of Advertising at Boston University’s College of Communications where I teach advertising creativity with an emphasis on emerging and digital media. I am also the part-time Chief Innovation Officer (formerly Chief Creative Officer and Chief Social Media Officer) at Mullen, an Ad Age A-List agency I’ve helped build and lead for nearly 30 …

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